Alexis on classification

Johanna Nichols johanna at
Thu Jan 29 21:26:12 UTC 1998

----------------------------Original message----------------------------
Alexis Manaster Ramer writes:
  This is what makes Nichols'
>entirely erroneous statments third-hand, and as to why they
>are erroneous, there is no better argument than that Rona-Tas
>in fact has consistently refused to reject Altaic (as opposed
>to Doerfer).
        This presupposes that the mere fact that someone believes in it
means that a genetic relationship is real.  It doesn't.  Logically, as
Scott DeLancey has pointed out, the null hypothesis of no relationship
holds until relationship is demonstrated.  Opinion is not the same thing as
demonstrated fact.
and he writes:
Anyone who knows anything about Altaic studies
>would know that, and would also know that Dr. Nichols'
>statements are entirely unfounded.
        It should not be necessary to be a specialist in, or even well
acquainted with, a language group or the work on it in order to retrieve
from the literature an accurate assessment of whether the group is a
family.  It's up to the Altaicists to lay out the evidence they regard as
probative and why they regard it as probative.  I've seen nothing I find
probative.  So, though I actually believe that at least Tungusic and
Mongolian are related, I can't treat Altaic as a family for purposes of
sample design, language family censuses, etc.
        I hope the paper by Manaster Ramer et al. reviews the evidence and
not just the history of opinions.
        For what it is worth, in deciding how to regard the genetic status
of Altaic in drawing up the sample for the 1992 book in which I referred to
Unger's 1991 article, I conferred with various people who work on Altaic,
sought information in reference works and overviews, looked over
grammatical paradigms myself, and came to the conclusion that relatedness
wasn't proved and wasn't assumed by enough people in the field to be
regarded as received view.  The 1987 panel discussion reported by Unger,
which I attended, seemed to me to be surveying and presenting received
view, and it reviewed and rejected some of the evidence previously regarded
as probative.  My notes on the panel are not very detailed, and Unger's
piece presents less detail than I recall the actual panel presenting, but I
had taken the panel to be authoritative and therefore took the report of it
to be authoritative.  In any event I came to the panel meeting believing
that Turkic, Tungusic, and Mongolian are a family and that that was
received view, and left the meeting believing that genetic relatedness of
Altaic was not received view among Altaicists and that indeed much of the
evidence was less sound than I had thought.
        I believe this little history underscores the importance of
specialists presenting the evidence (and not just the opinions) in surveys
in the field.  It should be possible for any trained linguist to find, in
reference works, an objective statement of the current received view in the
field and the evidence and standards on which received view is based.
        My reading of Alexis Manaster Ramer's posting of Jan. 27 is that it
concedes my two points, namely (1) he knows of no work by me that is either
recent or an attack on Altaic [much less both] and (2) the reviews and
other  critiques of Greenberg's Language in the Americas (1987) do discuss
Greenberg's comparisons.

More information about the Histling mailing list